An Analysis of Metaphysical Religious Poetry
In this essay the metaphysical religious poetry of the seventeenth century is explored. This essay argues that the imagery in the poems of John Donne, George Herbert and Andrew Marvell contributes to themes of struggle and acceptance. Initially, this essay discusses the religious context their poems were written in, and then it presents an analyses of their poetry as metaphysical works. In this analysis the imagery each poet used, as well as the influence of the King James Bible is identified. Finally, the essay concludes how the analysis of the imagery in the poems, supports the themes of struggle and acceptance. The aim of this essay is to gain an understanding on how the poets influenced each other, as well as on the similarities and differences in their religious poetry. It is important to analyse the religious poems in light of the religious developments during the seventeenth century. Religion was a matter of life and death, both nationally and personally (Cox, 1982:31). The Church of England were also marked as going through a time of adversity (Parry, 1985:12). Furthermore, the Protestant contemporaries shared a view that they were living in the last age of the world, as sermons viewed the Reformation as the beginning of the end (Parry 1985:67). Consequently, religious writers often discussed their urgency of affirming that the Spirit of God was still active in England, and themes of the End drawing near, including the Day of Judgement, was widespread (Parry, 1985:12). Metaphysical poetry was therefore used as the “poetry of the great age of drama” (Gardner, 1986:23), and this context distinctly influenced the underlying motifs of struggle and acceptance in the religious poems of Donne, Herbert and Marvell. The religious poetry of Donne, especially his “Holy Sonnets” clearly demonstrate this struggle in the religious journey of searching for the truth, through a closely woven line of argument, as often seen in metaphysical poetry. As example, in “Holy Sonnet 1” Donne instructs God: “Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste” (Donne, 83, line 2). Donne undoubtedly shared the view of his Protestant contemporaries, since this urgency of asking to be cleansed before the time of Judgement, exposes his doubts and fear of unworthiness to God in the end time. Additionally, Donne introduces a metaphysical conceit, by referring to himself as being repairable. This provokes imagery of humans as machines infected by sin, whereas God is the repairer of our malfunction.
Regarding use of imagery, Donne likewise uses striking similes and metaphors to emphasize his struggles, such as “And all my pleasures are like yesterday;/ I dare not move my dim eyes any way” (Donne, 83, lines 4-5). Hereby he constructs an image of his life flashing before his eyes, and portrays how crucial it is to keep his focus on God, to ensure his salvation. This is just one example of imagery he used which were drawn from the King James Bible, as seen in Proverbs 4:25 “Let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eyelids look straight before thee” (Bible, 2012). Donne used this statement as a way of evoking the imagery of the need to focus his eyes on God. Another example drawn from the King James Bible is the imagery of resisting temptation, revealed by “But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,// That not one hour I can myself sustain” (Donne, 83, lines 11-12). This refers to the weakness of man against temptation from the devil as seen in Mark 14:38, where God instructs man: – “Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation. The spirit truly ready, but the flesh weak” (Bible, 2012). The imagery used in the religious poetry of Donne, thus supports the themes of acceptance and struggle, specifically acceptance for salvation and struggle with temptation. Similar to Donne, Herbert also draws on the motifs of struggle and acceptance in his poems. However, according to Vickers (2001:179), Herbert’s...
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